I get asked almost everyday, "What ever happened to the golf course issue?" For most people who don't live in the immediate area, all of the controversy was simply 'the golf course issue.' And for the most part, it has disappeared off their radar.
I understand, and I am fascinated that people I know from all over Southern California actually paid any attention to our community crisis. But the fact is that property development clashes are occurring all over the country. In San Diego alone we have seen multimillion dollar campaigns and political trainwrecks over One Paseo in Del Mar, Fanita Ranch in Santee, Caruso's Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad, and huge planned communities like Lilac Ranch in Valley Center, and Newlin Sierra in San Marcos.
Most of those were either modified or turned down altogether as voter initiatives. Proof that San Diegans aren't fond of builders trying to bully them. As for the situation at the abandoned Escondido Country Club, I personally get ill driving by it every day, looking at the fallow fairways, the collapsed pine trees, the weeds and the rusty rent-a-fence that provides no security and adds to the sense of disheveled dilapidation.
In Escondido, the property rights situation was very different than the other projects. After local property owners won a grassroots initiative campaign that reconfirmed 1960's city planners original 'Open Space' zoning on the golf course property, another lawsuit overturned it and awarded high density residential zoning to the out-of-town property speculator who had bet millions on the city allowing him to redevelop the land.
In the end, the City was caught in a web of dishonesty and incompetence. They not only screwed up the original zoning variance, they then failed to memorialize it in the General Plan, and ultimately decided that it was too expensive to fight to overcome their own mistakes and to protect the equity and stability of the country club community.
They chose to make decisions based on dollars rather than sense.
Here we are, after five years of battling, it is clear that all of the major players, the City, the owner Michael Schlesinger, and the selected lead developer New Urban Development, are all plowing ahead, knowing full well that there is no serious opposition to building hundreds of residential homes on the property, because the local homeowner opposition has been financially tapped out, and the legal permissions have been established.
The reality is no matter what we local property owners think about it, redevelopment will happen at some point in time.
It doesn't matter at this point that our cause was just, that we followed all of the rules, that we treated our opposition in a classy and respectful way (despite their childish and vindictive actions like dumping tons of fresh chicken manure near resistant homeowner's backyards), that we employed some of the legal communities finest and most experienced property rights consultants and litigators, that we spent thousands of volunteer hours knocking on doors and educating Escondido voters, and that we did exactly what our City leaders requested we do throughout the process. The fact is Schlesinger had more political connections, more money and a powerful legal team.
I have been involved in the major residential development industry for decades and I know how this stuff works. Unfortunately, most of my neighbors don't. The fact is that once Mayor Abed abdicated his role as protector, capitulated to the rezoning demands of Schlesinger, and reached a formal development agreement with him, the community rights war was lost.
At this point in time, there is no realistic path to preserving the green space that the golf course gave us for over fifty years. Can we delay the inevitable? Yes. Is that the best way to help the community to recover? Probably not.
It is selfish to assume that the whole community is content to look at blight for another five or ten years, to accept the loss of home equity, and to simply ignore the depressing landscape. Times have changed and for many of us it is time to accept that change is inevitable.
Something has to give...
The era of community based, semi-private golf country clubs in lightly populated, working class communities is over. The truth is that too many pressures, from housing needs, property values, maintenance costs, over supply of golf facilities, drought and high water costs, and lowered participation in outdoor activities by millennials, and reduced discretionary income, has made survival of neighborhood golf courses almost impossible. Realistically, the only ones that do survive do so because they are subsidized by other revenue streams. Lawrence Welk subsidizes both of their courses. The City is subsidizing Reidy Creek and the Vineyard, and has been since they opened.
In San Diego we have already seen the demise of the Carmel Highland course (which will become high density condos and apartments), San Luis Rey Downs Golf Club (now an open space reserve), and possibly will soon see several others courses like Cottonwood, and Warner Springs Resort up for sale for the purpose of redevelopment. Many others, like Sycuan/Singing Hills, and the Country Club of California are up for sale because the business of golf is simply not profitable.
So the question is, what do I see as the best path for Escondido Country Club going forward? I have always said I believe New Urban West is one of the better builders in the area, and if we have to deal with any builder, it is better to deal with the devil you know than the devil you don't know.
It is now up to our political leadership in Escondido to help us restore the honor to the northwest corner of our city that has been raped. They must not put local victims through another form of torture. They know what we want. The challenge is to get them (the council and the planning department) to find ways to mitigate the builders high density plans to include diverse community amenities. To redevelop the resort-like atmosphere that the original 60's era plans envisioned and that made the Country Club area one of the most desirable addresses in Escondido.
What has been submitted to the City is a step in the right direction, but it still allows for way too much density. We are making progress, but Schlesinger continues to ask for a scandalous ROI, forcing NUW to plot too many homes to make it pencil out financially. We must push the City to actively insist on a lower density so Schlesinger will be forced to accept a lower, less exploitive and extreme payday.
The most important concerns are, properly mitigating increased traffic, providing neighborhood parks and recreational opportunities (of which this area has none), reducing water consumption without punishing current residents, and also adding amenities that serve residents and attract tourist dollars and increase the value and image of the community at large. Other than a proposed restaurant, none of those issues has been adequately addressed in the current proposal.
The City of Escondido needs to turn a public relations nightmare, mostly caused by them, into a positive community repurposing, and a North County image builder. They have the power to do that.